ACLU Sues Private Extradition Company Over Guard's Sexual Assault of Prisoner

March 1, 1999 12:00 am

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Monday, March 1, 1999

DENVER–The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado filed suit today against the country’s largest private extradition company on behalf of a female prisoner who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of a sexual assault by a company guard during a drive from Texas to Colorado.

The company, TransCor America, assigned an all-male crew for the extradition despite similar incidents, similar lawsuits, and a company policy that required the presence of at least one female guard.

The lawsuit, filed by ACLU cooperating attorney John Webb of Holme Roberts & Owen, joins two similar cases currently pending against TransCor in federal district court in Denver. All allege that female prisoners were victims of sexual assault while being transported by all-male crews. TransCor is the target of similar allegations in other states.

“It is time for TransCor to take full responsibility for the safety and treatment of prisoners whom the government entrusts to its care,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director. “No woman should ever have to endure what our client went through.”

The woman who suffered the assault, who remains anonymous in legal papers, is a 43-year-old mother of four who has been married for 19 years. In 1997, after living for 20 years in Colorado and 15 years in Fremont County, the couple moved to Texas.

The following year, the woman was arrested for the first time in her life on an old warrant from Fremont County. She voluntarily waived extradition, and Fremont County hired TransCor to transport her. The sexual assault, along with threats of retaliation if she reported the abuse, occurred during the five-day trip to Colorado in March 1998.

After the woman arrived in Colorado, the staff at the Fremont County Jail recognized her obviously distraught condition and sought help. A therapist determined that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, a common consequence of sexual assaults.

During the van’s round-about trip to Colorado, the woman spent the days shackled in the van and spent the nights in county jails along the route. According to the ACLU’s complaint, she was not able to use the toilet at rest stops during the day because the male guards insisted on watching. One day she was forced to wait over thirteen hours until they stopped for the night at a county jail.

The growth of private extradition companies parallels the increasing reliance on privately-owned prisons. TransCor was recently acquired by Corrections Corporation of America, one of the largest private prison companies in the country. Although private extradition companies cost less than the traditional escort by sworn law enforcement agents, they have been a consistent targets of complaints from prisoners and their advocates.

“The ACLU regularly receives complaints from prisoners about their treatment by private extradition companies,” Silverstein said. “There is virtually no government regulation of the conditions prisoners live in while they are shackled all day long without sanitary facilities in these cramped transport vans, which routinely take extended round-about routes so they can pick up more prisoners and maximize profits. When it comes to regulations governing interstate transportation, circus animals and cattle receive more government protection than prisoners.”

According to the ACLU, one prisoner shipped from Ohio to Colorado spent 20 days traveling through 20 states, including New York, Maryland, and South Dakota, before he finally arrived in Colorado. Prisoners endure these long trips without a change of clothing and with only sporadic access to showers. Instead of making more frequent rest stops, guards have told prisoners to urinate into a shared plastic milk jug.

In addition, prisoners reportedly fear for their safety during transport, citing a lack of seat belts or safety harnesses, neglected maintenance of vehicles, and guards pushing to drive overly-long hours, resulting in reduced alertness and even falling asleep at the wheel. In 1997, six prisoners burned to death in Tennessee when a van operated by a different private extradition company caught fire after its drive shaft fell off and punctured the gas tank. The van had been driven 260,000 miles.

In addition to serving various Colorado cities and counties, TransCor has a contract with the Colorado Department of Corrections to transport parole violators and other inmates who must be returned to Colorado. In 1989, California officials canceled a similar contract with a private extradition company, after a legislative committee held hearings about a barrage of similar allegations, including sexual assault of female prisoners.

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